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Final Rehearsal: Jackson Flashed Old Magic


A hovering orb, a flaming bed, mutant spiders, 20-foot puppets, 3-D effects, pyrotechnics and the return of the crooning, spinning, moonwalking King of Pop. Michael Jackson's farewell concert tour had every crowd-pleasing lure - but no crowds.

Fans had ponied up $85 million for 750,000 tickets to Jackson's 50 shows at London's O2 arena, a marathon swan song, aptly titled This Is It, that was scheduled to begin July 13. Instead, the final curtain fell Wednesday night at a rehearsal in Los Angeles' Staples Center, where Jackson sang and danced for the last time.

No applause. No screaming throng. No demands for encores. Only his crew and a few guests saw what would be the unheralded closing performance by one of history's greatest entertainers.

Jackson's death Thursday at age 50 derailed an ambitious campaign to restore luster to a career tarnished by scandal, debt and creative false starts.

"He was trying, and succeeding, in structuring the biggest, most spectacular live production ever seen," says Johnny Caswell, co-owner of CenterStaging in Burbank, Calif., where Jackson polished the show from late March to early June before shifting rehearsals to larger venues.

"By the time he left my facility, he had graduated through several studios and was on a soundstage taking up 10,000 square feet," Caswell says. "They moved to The Forum, outgrew that and needed the height at Staples. The show was getting so damn big, they couldn't finish it in time. That's why they had to delay."

Reports that the singer postponed the London start date by five days because of poor health were "nonsense," Caswell says. But after Jackson's death, reports surfaced of longtime prescription drug abuse, including suspicions raised by Jackson's family through the Rev. Jesse Jackson that the singer has been receiving injections of the painkiller Demerol. The physician who was with the singer when he died, Conrad Murray, was interviewed by Los Angeles authorities over the weekend.

The Los Angeles County Coroner's office has withheld a declaration of the official cause of death until toxicology tests are completed. The singer's family had a second autopsy done by a private pathologist, the "Los Angeles Times" reported.

Wednesday at Staples, Jackson worked with his band, crew, choreographers and a dozen dancers, roughly 80 people total, to fine-tune what was expected to be his comeback after a 12-year absence from the tour circuit. It was a hiatus during which he faced rising debt, a child sexual abuse trial and waning record sales.

Back in the game

Jackson's goal of returning to prominence seemed easily within reach to the few who saw Wednesday's rehearsal.

"He was energetic, passionate, diligent, prepared, excited and an effective leader," Caswell says, adding that Jackson was an inspiration to his crew. "These folks followed him like he's the Pied Piper. He was a perfectionist. This guy was ready to go."

Says Ed Alonzo, the "Misfit of Magic" who created illusions for Britney Spears' Circus tour and joined Jackson's show six weeks ago: "It was an amazing show. The thing was just days away from being perfected. It was incredible. Even though it was just a walk-through with the dancers, his moves were dead-on - the same Michael Jackson we (saw) through the years in music videos."

When Jackson kicked off what turned out to be his final rehearsal, he donned a headset microphone, strolled to an elevated platform and launched into his 1991 hit "Dangerous" - first a cappella, then with the band.

"He wasn't singing full-out, but he was singing," Alonzo says. "They ran the number a couple of times and started to bring more props onstage that he looked at for the "Thriller "number. Every song he was doing was not just singing, but surrounded by huge production - gigantic spiders and 20-foot puppets. I feel I was so blessed to see the only performance of this concert."

Jackson appeared underweight but not sick, he says.

When they hugged, "he felt very thin," Alonzo says. "Even the first time I met him, 20 years ago at Neverland (Jackson's ranch in Santa Barbara County, Calif.), he was thin. So it didn't strike me as odd, other than he seemed fragile. But his energy and the way he moved and spoke had a lot of impact. His soul didn't seem fragile at all. This is just a thin guy."

Longtime Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich, summoned to Staples on Wednesday evening to meet with Jackson on their potential collaboration on a television project, likewise found Jackson upbeat and energetic, overseeing every aspect of the production from video footage to prop cues.

After their discussion, Jackson invited Ehrlich to stick around for the rehearsal. "Michael was ready," says Ehrlich, who had worked with Jackson on various projects and booked his performance at the 1988 Grammys.

"The show wasn't all there yet, but it looked extremely creative," Ehrlich says. "You could see how much thought had gone into it. There were impactful moments."

The 10 or 11 songs performed during the rehearsal unfolded in a casual setting, but Jackson occasionally unleashed the full force of his stage persona.

"I've seen him in rehearsal mode several times over the years," Ehrlich says. "Michael is extremely methodical. He's not going to give it all until he knows he's got it all.

"But sometimes, he'd jump into it, and it was really exciting. As he got more comfortable with the props and where the dancers were, he got more animated. This was a guy who did it all, and here he was doing it again."

'He ... was electric'

In earlier rehearsals, Jackson had seemed restrained to some observers.

But after worrying that the frail singer might not have the strength for the London shows, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe was reassured after seeing Wednesday's preview.

"He came on stage and was electric," he told BBC's Radio 4, describing the show as complicated and challenging. "Suddenly he was performing as one had remembered him in the past."

Crewmembers were astonished by Jackson's talent, charisma and verve.

"There was a sense we had actually seen this comeback that was so important to him," Woodroffe says. He says he wasn't sure Jackson would have lasted through the tour's March 6 finale, "but he would have made it to the start of the race."

Frank DiLeo, Jackson's manager, told "The H"ollywood Reporter" that after finishing the rehearsal sometime after midnight early Thursday, the singer expressed joy about the night's work.

"He found me and said, "Frank, I am so happy. ... This is really our time.' He put his arm around me," DiLeo told the newspaper.

Alonzo had designed dazzling effects for the show, including a glass sphere that would float around Jackson during the opening song, 1982's "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'''.

The globe was designed to light up and grow brighter as it drifted over the crowd before landing in Jackson's palm. Jackson's instructions, according to Alonzo: "I want people to scream for miles."

For a splashy version of "Dirty Diana", Jackson wanted a flaming bed with a pole-dancing aerialist "playing the part of the fire," Alonzo says.

The elaborately plotted stunt: Jackson intended to be pursued around the bed by the "fire woman," and each time she touched the stage, flames in the form of fluttering crimson fabric would shoot skyward.

After she caught him, she would lash him to the bed's tall posts with gold rope and a sheet of red fabric would billow before him, illuminating his struggling silhouette.

When the sheet fell, the magic trick would be triggered - the woman would be revealed as the one ensnared, and Jackson would materialize on a stage in the center of the arena.

Grieving fans, huge losses

Details of Jackson's extravaganza have been scarce because all parties involved were required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Now fans are gleaning clues about what would have been a towering spectacle that's being dismantled as its creator is mourned around the world. (Refund details for those who bought tickets - which cost 50 to 75 pounds, or $69 to $103, when they went on sale, according to "Billboard" - will be announced this week.)

Wednesday's rehearsal was videotaped, but it's unclear whether Jackson's performance will be made public, such as through the sale of a DVD.

Caswell, crushed that Jackson's camp didn't allow the CenterStaging rehearsals to be filmed, says the show's death means heartbroken fans, huge losses for promoters and a missed opportunity to remind the world of Jackson's talent. He sees a solution in a stage bromide: The show must go on.

"I would do the concert as a tribute to Michael," he says.

"Do every song with a different major artist. Film it and put it in IMAX theaters. Then box it up and sell it for the next 30 years."

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